Tuesday, November 07, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?

Keeping a story going past the end of the dramatic question is exasperating for the audience, even if they’re otherwise enjoying themselves. The Big Sleep is a wonderful movie, but the original mystery is solved two-thirds of the way through, leaving the audience baffled as to why the movie keeps going. 

And the second half of Gone with the Wind never fails to exasperate me: The war ends, Tara is restored, the couple seems to break up definitively, then get back together definitively, and then marry, and then have a kid, then on and on and on. Even when Rhett leaves Scarlet for the “final time” at the end, I don’t really buy that he’s gone for good. What is the dramatic question here?

There isn’t one. Unlike The Godfather, this sprawling epic saga doesn’t seem to have a pre-established end point. No dramatic question unites the movie, and it limps to a finish two hours after it should have ended. (Seriously, folks, just quit watching at the intermission. You won’t miss anything.)

Straying from the Party Line: Wrapping Up the Drama a Little Early in The Fighter
Here and here, I say that the dilemma needs to last right up until the climax or sometimes past it. Either the climactic action resolves it, or it gets resolved afterwards in an epilogue. This is because any climax that happens after the resolution of the dilemma will feel meaningless as the story “rolls downhill.”

In fact I previously pointed to this very movie as an example of how to do this right:
  • Ward is famous today for the three knock-down, drag-out title fights he fought against Arturo Gatti. But you won’t see those here. The writers took a good look at his life, decided that the best story was Ward’s struggle with his own family, and then ruthlessly pared that story down to its essence. We begin when Ward finally becomes aware of that problem and we end when that problem is ultimately resolved. The Gatti fights came about because Ward had solved his problems outside the ring, so they have no place here.
So instead of showing the Gatti fights, they ended with the fight in which Ward wins the championship belt from Shea Neary, but even then, the emotional dilemmas (with his brother, his mother and his girl) are still resolved a few scenes before that fight, and the championship fight we see is merely the payoff to that resolution...and that’s fine.
Another movie with a similar structure is Breaking Away: There too, Dave resolves all of his issues with his dad, his girlfriend, and his friends, and then begins the triumphant final bicycle race. As with The Fighter, the result is an exhilarating stand-up-and-cheer triumph, and we don’t really care that things are rolling downhill.

The implication is clear: sports movies get a little more slack. The alternative, after all, is to have the person the hero is having a problem with sitting in the stands, allowing them to silently communicate their emotional breakthrough just before our hero wins the match. It can be done, but it’s far from ideal, so it’s okay to wrap the emotional beats up a little early, and end with nothing but triumph. In some sports movies, the actual victory is just a victory lap.

(How much of an extension on the deadline do you get? Probably only about ten minutes, so don’t push it!)

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. The movie ends one minute after it’s answered.


YES, the alien is killed at the very end.

An Education

YES. She gets into Oxford.

The Babadook

NO. We never find out if the psychiatrist arrived, but now we sense that they don’t need him or her anymore.  

Blazing Saddles

YES. the townspeople stay, but Bart leaves.

Blue Velvet

YES. we finally see the man with the missing ear.

The Bourne Identity

YES. we finds out why his mind snapped, and what happens when he confronts Conklin.


YES. The story ends very quickly after the wedding comes off well.


YES. we find out who’s on that plane.


NO. The dramatic question has shifted many times before we reach the end.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  he returns to his wife in the last scene.

Do the Right Thing

YES. we find out the consequences of the heat.

The Farewell

YES. we see that the lie doesn’t come out, Billi doesn’t tell the truth, and Nai Nai doesn’t die. 

The Fighter

YES. Micky becomes champion.


YES. All of the stories except the Kristoff story climax at the exact same moment as the curse is broken.

The Fugitive

YES. the movie ends immediately after he goes into custody.

Get Out

YES. He presumably makes it home. 

Groundhog Day

YES. “Let’s live here.”

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Hiccup finds the nest halfway, but the rest find it at the end.

In a Lonely Place

YES. we find out that Dix didn’t kill her.

Iron Man

YES. Stane is stopped.

Lady Bird

YES. The story goes a bit past the end of the main dramatic question: Will she leave town?  But then we realize the real question: Will she accept her mom and what her town has done for her?

Raising Arizona

YES. They finally come face to face with Nathan Sr. 


YES. He gets a girlfriend in Margaret Yang. 


YES. Onscreen titles about the characters voting.

The Shining

YES. they leave in the final shot.


YES. We get the wedding, drinking the wine and hooking up one after another, the end.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Girl is rescued, lambs stop screaming.

Star Wars

YES. The plans are used to destroy the Death Star at the very end.

Sunset Boulevard

Almost.  We find out how he ended up in the pool, but there’s one really big scene still to come.  

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